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Kellie Pickler rose to fame during the fifth season of American Idol, and while she only finished a disappointing sixth, she has since been able to carve out herself a successful music career and become a formidable force in the field of country. While I am in no way trying to compare them, at times, she has the appeal of Dolly Parton in that she has that ditzy southern demeanour and the effortless ability to swing between tongue-in-cheek, playful songs to heart shattering ballads. With a unique singing voice, perhaps a little jarring at first for non-Americans, she certainly isn't the product of a reality show conveyor belt production line. Her debut is an incredibly strong first outing, although at times, for such a unique singer, there are songs which feel a little too generic.
'Red High Heels' kicks off the album (no pun intended!) with the loud twanging of southern guitars and fast drums. It's a spunky, up-tempo country song which emanates positivity from start to finish. Tired of brooding over her hurt and missing her ex, the protagonist decides to get over him by donning her favourite shoes and going out: "Oh you can watch me walk if you want to, want to/I'll bet you want me back now don't you, don't you/I'm about to show you just how missin' me feels/In my red high heels". I love the chorus, it's ridiculously catchy. One listen and it'll be stuck in your head. I just love the song in that it takes a sad and depressing topic, and shows a woman shrugging it off and being triumphant and happy. The song has since become Pickler's signature song, and for good reason - it's an incredible tune!
For me, the second-track 'Gotta Keep Moving' is a big let down. With pounding drums, my hopes were raised then dashed with this horrendously generic track. The song plays on every country cliché ever, and is about driving home in your pick-up truck, excited to see your boyfriend. It's lyrically, incredibly weak and sounds a little too forced for me. The production is sound, and I can't complain about the hook, but there is something lacking in this song that is hard to put my finger on.
The frisky 'Things That Never Cross a Man's Mind' really embodies Kellie's playful personality. It's the kind of song that will have people both chuckling and nodding in agreement. With strong drums and feisty guitars, while the melody doesn't have too much variation (it doesn't move about enough for it to be one of my favourite songs on the album), it does however have some bite. The lyrics such as "I need to go shopping/These shoes are all wrong/Just looked in my closet/Not a thing to put on/I wonder how these jeans make me look from behind/Things that never cross a man's mind" are great, as they aren't the typical men-hating words you sometimes get, but are merely a bit of a light-hearted tease that only a personality such as Kellie can pull off. Overall, the song is a grower, but what it represents (the character and unique feel to it) ultimately adds to the album.
'Didn't You Know How Much I Loved You' is a heartbreaking ballad, with simple production coming in the form of a piano and light guitar. This simplicity really helps Kellie's voice and the honest lyrics shine through. While power ballads can easily be syrupy and dripping in clichés, there is something real about this song. As she describes the devastating feeling after losing a boyfriend, she describes the rollercoaster of emotions with conviction ("From falling apart, to fighting mad/From wanting you back to not giving a damn") but ultimately in the chorus, shows vulnerability with that all too painful question: "Didn't you know how much I loved you?". Easily one of the best tracks on here, and it really stands out as a fantastic ballad.
The beautiful simplicity of the piano and steel guitars in 'I Wonder' make for an incredibly poignant and heartbreaking moment on the album. Co-written by Pickler, it's an autobiographical song about her Mother who abandoned her in childhood and has been absent ever since. In the lyrics, she reflects on missed moments (braiding hair, getting ready for prom) and wonders if her mother ever thinks about her. The most powerful music is undoubtedly that which draws from real life, and this is heartbreakingly honest and vulnerable. The line which always resonates in me in this song is the powerful line in the bridge where she sings: "Forgiveness... such a simple a word/But it's too hard to do... when you've been hurt". Never a truer word has been spoken. This is one of the shining moments on the album where you have to give props to Pickler as both a vocalist and songwriter. In both respects, she is flawless on this song.
'Small Town Girl', the title track, is one of the most fun songs I've heard in a long time. It has Pickler revisit the town where she grew up and comparing it with her new life, after finding fame and fortune. It's a sweet and endearing song, as in every comparison, she seems to prefer the quiet southern life. The only way you can describe this song is bubbly. It's uptempo and has a great guitar in it, along with witty lyrics: "A town so small you don't need a map/That's where I'm from and there ain't no changing me/I'm just a small town girl/And that's all I'll ever be." I think occasionally, when singers do songs like these, they can come across as artificial or self-indulgent. However, Kellie's personality and choice of lyrics, makes it an incredible song. As well as being catchy, it also makes you feel as if the girl next door is singing to you as opposed to a country superstar who hasn't ever lived a normal life.
The lyrics to 'Wild Ponies' tell the story of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship, and are really well-written. "She was a beautiful girl/She was wild as the wind/On top of the world/Till she fell in love with him". The lyrics contrast images of control and freedom really well, and the twanging banjos and crashing drums, add an epic feel to the song. It's a really good track that tells a story - it isn't personal though, although I'd argue it adds some variation from the two autobiographical tracks which precede it.
'Girls Like Me' continues the theme of staying true to your roots that was explored on the title track. "I can still smell the blossom of those sweet magnolia trees/I can still hear the bible stories that my grandma use to read/Years fly by and I'm still the same inside that I used to be... guess there ain't no changing girls like me," Kellie sings in the incredibly polished chorus. The song is filled with sparky, unptempo country guitar twanging, and is loaded with all the makings of a great crossover pop song. It's a wonderfully cheerful song which reflects Pickler's personality, but more importantly, it further goes to help you identify with her and understand who she is as person. It's an endearing, fun and overall, a highlight on the CD.
One of the best tracks on the CD is 'I'm on My Way'. The light twanging of a banjo and acoustic guitar accompany a gentle a softly-sung Pickler on the verses, followed by a fist clenching sing-a-long chorus of: "No, I don't give up easy/I got many miles to go/But I can't wait to get to/What I see down this road/And I'll my life I've learned to/Take it day by day/I'm not there yet... but I know I'm on my way". It's ridiculously catchy, and I love how the song builds in momentum. Kellie's vocals really sound great on the track too, with the perfect balance of power and emotion. It could have been easily a very corny song, but the lyrics and production allow it to be charming as opposed to cheesy.
'One of the Guys' is the most country sounding song on the album. It really conjures up images of a southern bar, with music laced with harmonicas and a swinging melody. I love the personality and the lyrics, but at times, it feels a little too forced. Lamenting the difficulty being a girl, Kellie sings "while it's fun getting dressed up to the nines/sometimes it's fun to be... one of the guys". Unlike the rest of the album, Kellie's quirkiness feels a little too forced and over exaggerated here, making the song feel like filler as opposed to a country-pop gem (like many of the other tracks).
The tender and poignant close to the album comes in the form of 'My Angel', a sweet song that pays tribute to Kellie's grandmother. It's best described as a ballad but the chorus is given a boost of energy with soaring vocals and hard-hitting drums. What I really like about this song is obviously the beautiful lyrics but also how the song never succumbs to sadness, but stays cheerful. This and 'I Wonder' play a key role on the album, as some of the more generic tracks are counteracted - giving the CD a sense of identity.
While there are a couple of mis-fires, as Kellie uses a couple of formulaic and stale subject matters on 'Gotta Keep Moving' and 'One of the guys', overall, this is a great debut album. Kellie's bubbly personality really permeates a lot of the songs and by the end of the CD, you will have seen her cheeky, inspirational and vulnerable. With a unique voice and quality material, she is without a doubt one of the most interesting country-pop singers out right now. Available for £9.99 on CDwow.com, I urge you all to give her a try, as I know a lot of people will be pleasantly surprised.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Red High Heels
2 Gotta Keep Moving
3 Things That Never Cross a Man's Mind
4 Didn't You Know How Much I Loved You
5 I Wonder
6 Small Town Girl
7 Wild Ponies
8 Girls Like Me
9 I'm on My Way
10 One of the Guys
11 My Angel